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When the system fails to help our students

comment Updated: Jun 13, 2016 05:52 IST

This is the time of the year when all eyes are on board examination results. In India, the results of the class 10 board examinations are the first publicly available outcome “indicators” for a student. If the content of examination papers and methods used to administer and grade were to be consistently reliable and valid, the pass percentage figures should indicate the gap between what students are expected to know as against what they know. But rarely is there careful analysis of the trends and factors that underlie the performance of these students.

The government data for the past 10 years from the District Information System for Education (DISE) indicate that enrolment, especially in states that are educationally backward, has increased dramatically. For example, the rise in enrolment in Bihar in the last decade is huge; enrolment in class 8 in Bihar in 2005-06 was 520,000. By 2014-15, it became closer to 2.12 million. The movement towards universal enrolment in elementary school was well underway even before the Right to Education Act was enacted, mandating compulsory schooling till the age of 14.

From 2005 to 2014, the Annual Status of Education Reports (ASERs) have repeatedly informed the country about weak and weakening basic learning levels, especially in reading and arithmetic. According to the ASER 2008 report, nationally, the percentage of rural children in Class 8 who could divide a three-digit number by a one-digit number was close to 67%. But in 2014 the percentage figure came down to 44%. The fact that the learning levels are low and declining was first pointed out by ASER around 2011-12. Since then different data sources have confirmed this.

There continues to be uncertainty about when the much-awaited new education policy will be announced or what its contents will be. But what is certain is that the Right to Education cannot simply be a promise to provide educational inputs and school infrastructure or of just a mandate to make children sit in classrooms for eight years. It is urgent that we define what a child who has completed class 8 should acquire, at least academically, in return for this enormous investment of time. In policy and in practice, the next step for the school system should be to ensure that most children reach this defined level. The promise of compulsory education is meaningless unless it is backed by a real and demonstrated guarantee of learning.

What happens after class 8? Most students and families hope that the next step will be class 9. This aspiration is a natural consequence of achieving close to universal enrolment at the elementary stage. Typically, the transition to secondary school is thought to be constrained by two major factors — accessibility and affordability. Hence, the primary focus of the government over some years has been to increase the provision of secondary schooling opportunities. But as more and more data become available, it is evident that a majority of children at the end of the compulsory education stage have not been adequately prepared to take the next step. Many are not equipped for coping with the scholastic load imposed by the secondary school curriculum, at least as it is organised today and even less for “passing” board examinations in any real way.

The knee-jerk reaction to fail rates in board examinations is to blame the no-detention policy. Proponents of dismantling the no-detention policy argue that children should be stopped or “held back” earlier in their school career. But a more level-headed approach would acknowledge that the main role of the education system is not simply of a gatekeeper for schooling but as an enabler and catalyst for capability building. In a country where many children are the first in their families ever to reach the end of elementary school, schools must provide adequate and effective support for learning.

By law, education is compulsory in India till the age of 14 or till the end of class 8. Also by law, no one below 18 can work, at least not in the organised sector. Who then is responsible for what happens to children and youth between 14 and 18? The 14-18 age group is likely to have about 100 million people. They cannot simply be “passed” or “failed”. They cannot just be shunted from a struggling education system to a vocational training system that is yet to take shape.

Looking at Bihar, I worry about the 800,000 young people who have not been able to clear their 10th exam this year. Public finance experts can calculate what the expenditure behind each child for 10 years implies for the exchequer. But the cost of disappointment and sometimes of deep despair for hundreds and thousands of youngsters is impossible to compute.

It is critical for India to have a plan that looks ahead, at least five years, at how we are going to get our young people ready for their next step in their life. This decision will shape the path of India’s development for the rest of this century. It is grossly unfair to have newspaper headlines that say “more than 50 per cent of children have failed their Std 10 exams”. Perhaps it would be more appropriate to state that “half of all schools and teachers were not able to help their children” or “half of all education officials in the state were not capable of doing their job” and “50 per cent of policy makers and law makers failed to be responsible for what they were elected to do”.

Rukmini Banerji is CEO, Pratham Education Foundation. The views expressed are personal.

First Published: Jun 13, 2016 05:52 IST